Yaacov Dweck’s The Scandal of Kabbalah tells the story of Leon Modena’s Ari Nohem, an anti-Kabbalistic treatise written into MSS by the famous Venetian rabbi in 1639. A multifaceted work embracing the history of the book, the actual details of the anti-Kabbalistic treatise and its subsequent impact upon the Haskalah, The Scandal of Kabbalah may demand more than one post. In this iteration, I want to look at the methodological orientation of the book vis a vis the field of Kabbalah.
Modena’s criticism and its subsequent history constituted some of the very ruins evoked by Scholem at the outset of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, ruins that Scholem himself recovered with such magnificent and ruthless efficiency in the construction of his own narrative. Ari Nohem and its history were profoundly inconvenient to the integrity of Scholem’s story. It undercut two of the central and contradictory claims upon which he built his scholarly edifice: the marginality of Kabbalah and its ostensible neglect as the subject of critical inquiry. Scholem was of two minds about the place of Kabbalah within Judaism: at times he insisted upon Kabbalah as a vibrant but subterranean force within Jewish history; at other times he insisted on its absolute centrality. But he was piercingly clear about its neglect as an academic subject before he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Sefer ha-Bahir.
I wish to be clear about what I am not doing: Modena was not Scholem in Baroque Venice. In one of his late pieces, Scholem perceptively pointed to Reuchlin as his intellectual ancestor. Scholem may not have been a kabbalist, as he repeatedly insisted, but like Reuchlin before him he was clearly sympathetic to Kabbalah. For all his insight, Modena lacked such sympathy.
Put more simply, Scholem thought he was the first critical reader of Kabbalah, but he wasn’t. Modena was.
If this complaint sounds familiar that’s because it forms the core of the argument of the first pages of Kabbalah: New Perspectives, a book which began the incipient, ongoing and never to be completed “rebellion” or methodological reorientation of Kabbalah away from Scholem. The beginning of New Perspectives sketches out a history of the critical study of Kabbalah which antedates Scholem. “The earliest critical discussions of Kabbalah are found in the Provencal literature produced shortly after the appearance of the first Kabbalistic manuscripts” Idel recounts, conflating Meir ben Shimon of Narbonne’s animadversions against the nascent Kabbalah with Scholem, Altmann and himself. Modena will appear as another stage in the evolution of a critical stance towards Kabbalah.
At this point it is worth wondering what “critical” is supposed to mean. It seems like critical in the sense of criticizing Kabbalah is conflated, at least, with critical in terms of academic discourse about Kabbalah. The two share that they are about it but they aren’t it. Part of the focus on pre-Scholemic critical approaches to Kabbalah is obviously meant to deflate Scholem’s conceit of being the first critical scholar of Kabbalah.
In any case, among the roster of those antedating Scholem, Idel includes Modena. Expanding on the previous critical literature of Del Medigo, Modena “considered Kabbalah a definite distortion of Greek thought.” He “regarded the entire Kabbalah as a post-Maimonidean phenomenon” with Neoplatonic sources, “connected with its anti-Maimonidean way of thought.” “The core of Ari Nohem, however, is his criticism of the Zohar” and his account of the testimony of Isaac of Acre, attributing the Zohar to Moses de Leon. This last account, which is a picaresque story about the widow of Moses de Leon, the manuscript of the Zohar and the inability of de Leon to hold onto a buck, would be quoted by all subsequent critics of the authenticity of the Zohar.
In any case, Dweck follows Idel in saying that Modena was a critical voice before Scholem and a critical voice ignored by Scholem. Why did Scholem “forget” about Modena?
The answer that Dweck suggests is that Scholem self-consciously picks and chooses from the past in order to inflate the significance and path-breakingness of his enterprise. So he would underplay the Ari Nohem to play up Major Trends.
There are a few problems I have with this answer. First, I think there’s a really important difference between Scholem and Modena that isn’t covered by the idea that “Modena was not Scholem in Baroque Venice.” Second, I think that Scholem does edit the past, but not so much to suppress Modena as to suppress a robust idea of Renaissance scholarship and humanism tout court. So we need to ask, what is the value added by Scholem over traditional “critics?” Besides this we need to ask, where is the Renaissance in Scholem?